A former adult movie star in real life, Simon Rex immediately knew how to get under the skin of Red Rocket’s hustler protagonist, Mikey Saber.

Starring in the audacious new film from writer-director Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Rex gives a magnetic performance in this darkly funny portrait of a uniquely American hustler, forced to return to his small Texan hometown when he runs out of options.

“Basically I’m a survivor and I think Mikey is a survivor. The difference between us is that Mikey Saber will do whatever it takes to make it to the top,” Rex tells STACK.

“He’ll burn bridges, he’ll hurt people, he’s a narcissistic sociopath and a delusional, dangerous person. I’d like to believe that I’m the opposite of a lot of those traits,” says the 47-year-old former model, actor, comedian, former MTV VJ and rapper.

Rex certainly understands Mikey Saber’s desperation, having himself clung on to the see-saw ride of success and all but given up on Hollywood when Baker offered him the lead role in Red Rocket.

Oozing charisma, Rex’s brief adult film career, under the alias of “Sebastian”, led to a regular MTV DJ gig, parlaying his popularity into roles on TV shows Felicity, Jack and Jill, and What I Like About You.

From TV to film, he landed in the distinctly B-list realms of Scary Movie 3, 4, & 5, Hotel California, Karate Dog and Superhero Movie.

As his alter ego rap persona, “Dirt Nasty,” his rap-comedy albums Nasty As I Wanna Be and Palatial, featuring Ke$ha, LMFAO and others, received a massive cult following on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, culminating in sold out shows across the globe.

But the veneer of celebrity was wearing thin – along with his dwindling bank account – in the months prior to the onset of the pandemic.

“I’d lived in LA for 20 years and moved to Joshua Tree two years ago, right before the pandemic, really just because I had lived in a city my whole life – San Francisco, New York and LA. And I was over-living in the human zoo,” Rex says when we chat on a cold, sunny day in Los Angeles, just before Christmas.

“It started to get to me, just being around millions of people all the time. I got exhausted with people, especially living in LA because everybody is here for one reason: to make it in show business. It’s a very shallow, weird energy here where everybody is kinda using each other to get to fame, which is a shallow pursuit in itself. So, I basically was like ‘OK. Alright. I’m out. I can’t do this anymore. I’m moving to the middle of nowhere.’

“I spent all the money that I’d saved over 25 years and I bought a little land in a tiny off-grid shipping container house and the plan was to stay there half the time just to balance out the chaos of living in a city. I just don’t think we’re biologically designed to live around this many people and all this concrete and wires. I don’t know. I just had this weird moment where I’m like ‘I’m out’. And then the pandemic hit right after I bought it, so I moved there full-time,” he says.

If his intentions were sincere, then life had other plans for him, Red Rocket becoming the darling of the 2021 festival circuit and generating plenty of award buzz just as Baker’s The Florida Project did back in 2017, with star Willem Dafoe nominated for numerous awards.

Likewise, Rex is receiving similar kudos and you don’t doubt him when he says, somewhat resignedly, “I’m probably gonna have to move back to LA, which I’m not really thrilled about because I don’t really like it here, but if that’s the sacrifice I gotta make for my work, that’s a small one to make.”

Debuting at Cannes last year, Red Rocket was warmly received, leading Rex to be cast opposite Diane Keaton in upcoming romcom, Mack & Rita.

He’s grateful that film fame was slow to come and feels like he has the tools to cope now. “If I go out to the desert, I can breathe and just think clearly and reset so that I can come back into the chaos and handle it a little better. Especially right now, things have been a little crazy for me with the attention for this movie, not in a bad way, but it’s just a lot. A lot of people coming at me and everyone wants something and I’m getting pulled in a million directions.

“It’s a lot coming out of this pandemic after being alone in the desert and all of this happening is pretty crazy. But I’d like to think I do pretty well in chaos and even with this movie we shot, it was very chaotic and I was able to kind of remain calm in all the craziness. I think it just comes with age,” he surmises.

Red Rocket’s Mikey Saber, he reckons, is the sum of all his experiences. “I might have been a bit of a narcissist back in the day. I think we’re all narcissists to a certain degree but I’ve learned a lot.

“With Mikey, if he’s just an a–hole for two hours, you don’t care what happens to him at the end. But if there’s a little window of ‘Oh, I kinda like this guy. Maybe he doesn’t know what he’s doing or have bad intentions?’ Then that’s just enough for you to stay onboard and be invested in the character.”

And Rex’s performance guarantees his audience stays invested to the very end.

Red Rocket is in cinemas now